Everyone Has Reversals

Story Lessons, Big and Small (Warning: Spoilers!)

January 27, 2006

Location, Location, Location

Choosing the right environment for a story is so important, yet seems to be easier said than done. The environment, or key location(s), inform the characters, the tone of the film, the credibility of the film, and the rules of the world, while simultaneously providing opportunities for (hopefully) varied interactions/scenes. So why do we always seem to end up in the same old places?

The 40 Year Old Virgin
has, as its key environment, a Future Shop type store. It's a great choice because it:

  • Is a workplace, and so, is a place our hero might reasonably spend most of his days.
  • Is a plausible workplace for our hero. A lifelong nerd might absolutely commit to a career in a store in which he can be somewhat anonymous, as well as have access to discounts on high-definition big-screen TVs.
  • Is a big space with a variety of areas/people. Our 4 main guys largely interact here, whether it's working, slacking, or talking with one another during the workday, or playing poker in the back room at night. Not to mention the interactions we get with other co-workers, managers, etc.
  • Is a distinct yet relatable choice. We all know what it's like to shop in Future Shop while dodging salespeople (mainly salesmen) working on commission.
  • Is a space (and therefore, a kind of job) we haven't seen a lot in film. No lawyers, advertising execs, architects, news reporters, or magazine editors here! And I know that makes me heave one giant sigh of relief.
The right environment for the story opens up more story possibilities. Which makes the creative process easier. Don't you want more story possibilities?

I love coffee shops too. Just not in movies.

January 21, 2006

I Don't Think We Should See Each Other Anymore

The 2003 remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was disappointing. It was creepy and disturbing, and at times, that was entertaining.

But it wasn't all that scary.

My theory: too much Leatherface.

A lot of the time, horror films rely on showing us the villain so we know what's coming. It's a classic way to build tension. But sometimes the fun of a horror is the not knowing. The villain gets no POV. We don't know where they are or what they're planning now. In this film, we spend too much time with the man/creature who should remain an unknown. You actually get the sense, at times, that we're just hanging out with Leatherface as he, you know, tidies up the workshop 'n' stuff. Every minute we spend with him makes us more comfortable with him. We get used to seeing him, to being in the room with him, which takes the shock out of the subsequent times he appears to our heroes.

Remember one of the major lessons of Jaws: it was a blessing Bruce the robot shark sucked. It's so much more frightening that we only catch glimpses of eye and teeth.

Just because the villain's the hook of the movie, doesn't mean he needs a lot of screen time. Let's all show some restraint with our inbred cannibals, allrighty?

January 14, 2006

Three Hours: Three Lessons

It's not often I feel wonder at the movies. I did with King Kong. Here are my top three story lessons. Feel free to add your own.

1. The movie takes itself seriously.

For some reason, I assumed there would be a certain level of irony and self-awareness to the film. Instead, we get dangers and passions and heartaches that are completely on the level. To love the film you have to believe in it. I didn't realize how much I had missed this innocence/forthrightness in contemporary movies until I felt it again. (As happened also with the LOTR trilogy.)

2. I care about the characters.

How does the story make me care about the characters? The
characters care about each other. It's all over the place-- people trying to save the people they love, and people mourning the loss of good friends.

3. An almost-wordless third act.

The table is set so well that by the time we're into the third act, nothing needs to be explained. We get bits of dialogue when we're learning about the Kong show, and as Jack watches his play and realizes he needs to find Ann... but after that, there's hardly anything. People shut up and start doing stuff. We watch with heart instead of head. The lack of dialogue also allows for the biggest possible impact when Kong and Ann agree that the city is "beautiful".

Inspiring, all.

Of course, to the person who saw the movie with me and said "Best second act ever"-- I can't exactly disagree.

Can you?

January 08, 2006

Please Don't Give Me What I Think I Want

Boy, War of the Worlds was fun. Zero complaints with the action. But what was with the ultra-happy ending? Tom and Dakota make it to an untouched Boston cul-de-sac to find the townhouse standing, Mom alive, and... the older brother has made it home safely too?!

Let me make something perfectly clear: I don't want teenage boys to die. But when teenage boys run off half-cocked to valiantly-slash-stupidly join the losing side of a war, I'm prepared to say goodbye and make my peace.

What seems like a really happy ending actually made many of us unhappy. It feels like a cheat. It's too much to ask, and we know it. The kid having survived takes the sting out of his actions in the first place, and renders the world of this movie a lie... apparently, despite the random and overpowering force of this alien attack, it's possible for an entire family (split into three different groups) to survive. How many other families got this lucky?

Surviving should always come at some cost.

January 03, 2006

Just Thought I'd Shower and Change

The Family Stone
isn't a perfect movie, but when it shines, it's because of the details: the quirks of characters, the surprising dialogue, some unexpected tears.

But t
his film plays into one of the worst (and most common) character transformation cliches I can think of: going from unkempt to clean. In this film, the Rachel McAdams character goes from spoiled and bitchy to warm and loving. The way this is illustrated for us? Rachel starts as a messy over-sleeper who wears long cardigans and carries an NPR tote bag, to a girl with neatly brushed hair, lipstick, and a sweater set.

Let me say, for the record, that this is a very minor spoiler. The "new and improved" Rachel is seen very briefly in the coda-like ending. But why, why, why does tidy always mean "better person"? Can't we figure out ways to illustrate that someone has changed other than wardrobe? I know it's easy, but come on... this is a film that seems to be about embracing our own special weirdnesses. Tsk, tsk.

I do understand that sometimes this method of illustrating change is a decent strategy. While Life As a House was plagued with other story problems, I actually bought that the Hayden Christensen character's goth gear early on was protesting a little too much. When he finally cleans up, it plays more like a levelling out than a loss of personality.

But here, here... talk about undermining the feeling of the movie. Rachel could've been the poster girl for sweet cardigan-lovin' women everywhere. Instead, she's the poster girl for Future Soccer Moms of America.

The Breakfast Club, anyone? Am I the only one still lying awake at night wishing Ally Sheedy had kept her black eyeliner?